Fifty Minute Classroom

Sep 18, 2021, 9:24
It’s Time Again to Do Things Differently
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It’s Time Again to Do Things Differently

30 August 2021

Reviewing your teaching methodologies with an eye toward the future.

By Adam Weiner, JD, CFSE

I wrote about the need to “Modernize Your Curriculum” back in August 2019. The article discussed how the culinary industry was changing and teachers at all levels needed to reevaluate what and how they taught. Little did I know when I wrote the article within six months the culinary world and your curriculums would be set aside and you would be virtually teaching hands-on classes.

It is once more time for you to think about the issues of “Modernizing Your Curriculum” and I respectfully suggest you start with reading this article. I know it is too late to make major changes in your curriculum or perhaps your core curriculum is mandated. However, little changes in lesson plans such as teaching Brussel sprouts instead of peas and carrots could give your students an edge in their cooking skills for their families or in their first hospitality job.

We as culinary instructors as well as many hospitality industry members do and teach things solely because that was how we were taught. “I’ve always taught it that way,” or, “That’s how I learned to do it,” are sentiments holding back our students. (And to be candid, teaching the same exact material in the same exact way makes teaching the same class semester after semester boring and stale.)

When I work with instructors and culinary professionals on this issue, I have a little story to emphasize the point: A first-year high school Foods and Nutrition student is making pot roast with dad. The student looked up and said, “Dad, when you make pot roast you always cut about two inches off the end. Why?” Dad thought for a moment and then said he didn’t know but that is how his dad showed him. A few weeks later at a family dinner the student said, “Grandfather, why did you teach my dad to cut a couple of inches off the end of a pot roast before putting it in the pot?” The grandfather looked embarrassed and said, “I don’t know, I learned from watching my mom and that’s how she did.” So, they all piled into the car and drove to the assisted care facility. They crowded into the room and great-grandmother was surprised and thrilled. She laughed and said, “I never get you all at the same time. My son, my grandson, and my great-grandchild are all in the room with me.” The high-school student spoke up first and said, “Great grandmother, when you made pot roast you would always cut a couple of inches off the end. Why?” Great grandmother looked confused. She closed her eyes for a few moments trying to remember her kitchen of many years ago. She opened her eyes, looked at her family, and smiled. She was so proud she could recall this from so long ago. “When we first got married, your great grandfather and I didn’t have a lot of money. We couldn’t afford a big pot. So, I had to cut some of the end to make the pot roast fit.”

A cute story, but it gets the point across. We shouldn’t be teaching things unless we know why we are teaching them. This applies in two ways:

  1. We shouldn’t be teaching things just because we were taught that way, or that is the way we have always done it.
  2. We shouldn’t always teach in the same fashion just because that is how we were taught.

The pot roast story covers number one quite thoroughly. We need to be sure there is a reason for teaching techniques, cooking principles, or recipes. Is what you are currently teaching making sense for students now and after they have completed training? For example, are you teaching quenelles and Boston Cream pie or are you including in your teaching small plates, healthier proteins and cooking techniques, gluten free and plant based, etc.?

The second point of not teaching the way you have been taught is a bit more difficult to grasp. Is how you are teaching the most effective way for your students to learn?

Let me give one example: setting your students up for success is a standard teaching phrase. We hear it and say it all the time. We work hard to set them up for success in our classroom. Suppose they are making cookies. How many times in your cooking classes have you pre-heated ovens, measured ingredients, set the ingredients out at each workstation, and walked around the room pointing out to each group what they need to do differently for the cookies to come out correctly?

I posit that when we treat our students like this, we set them up for success right now, but for the next time around and the rest of their life we are setting them up for failure. Many, if not mostly all, of our students need to learn from their own mistakes. They need to experience firsthand what happens to those cookies if they don’t preheat the oven or forget to add the sugar.

Much has been written about different learning modes. However, I have seen little (and heard even less) about letting your students learn from their own mistakes. (Note: The best authority on this, in my opinion, is Billy Joel: “So take it from me you'll learn more from your accidents, than anything you could ever learn at school.. ” from his song “Second Wind.”)

Yes, it might bruise their self-esteem for a day or two not to have perfect dishes at the end of the day. But the next time they make those or similar dishes on their own (without you babying them) they will have a great sense of accomplishment and pride.

Please note food and personal safety are paramount. If you see something that could be an issue for either, then you intervene.

Here is how you do this the first time. Give your students a simple recipe that can be completed within the class time with their current skills. Break them into teams. Click here to read my article “Picking Teams” which suggests different ways to select teams running from straightforward to one approaching diabolical. Don’t do the mise en place. Give them five minutes to review the recipe as a group. After five minutes tell them they have five more minutes to ask you questions. At the end of that five minutes tell them no more questions and to begin. Politely remind them you can’t answer questions when they ask you while they are cooking.

Are you setting them up to fail? Probably. However, the next time you give them time to review a recipe and ask questions, they will be more diligent on both parts. And that is the start of setting them up for success in cooking at home and cooking professionally.


Adam Weiner, JD, CFSE, has been a culinary instructor in the San Francisco Bay Area for more than 16 years.